Countdown to 2013: The Muddled and Messy Start to a Mayor’s Race Still Two-and-a-Half Years Away

(Photo Illustration by Scott Dvorin)

After Michael Bloomberg delivered his 10th State of the City speech at the ornate St. George’s theater on the North Shore of Staten Island, Bill de Blasio, John Liu, Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer elbowed their way through the exiting throng of the city’s political class to stake out a slab of space on the auditorium floor.

The city’s press corps shuttled among the four as they repeated over and over to each new group of microphones their reaction to the mayor’s annual address: Mr. De Blasio, the city’s public advocate, thought that it failed to lay out a transcendent vision; Mr. Liu, its comptroller, thought the speech singled out labor unfairly; Mr. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, rolled out one of his favorite metaphors-the mayor “needs to bring more people to the table to get things done”; Ms. Quinn, the Council speaker and close mayoral ally, declined, when pressed, to name something that she objected to in the talk.

The four commanded the media’s attention not only because they were among the four highest-ranking officials in the city. The press-and the public-were leaning in because they are among a crowded group of officials quietly angling to take over for Mr. Bloomberg when he at last departs the city’s political scene in 2013.

The Democratic primary to be the 109th mayor of the City of New York is still more than two and a half years away, a lifetime in political terms. But the chatter about the next campaign has already begun to intensify in political circles, as the various aspirants begin to eye one another warily and stake claims on an increasingly diminished electorate, one where in 2009 only a little more than 300,000 Democrats voted in a city with nearly three million of them.

And so, the Democratic hopefuls have started to play an inside game, keeping up a relentless pace on the nightly rubber chicken dinner rounds of community groups and civic associations and lining up the right mix of financial and institutional backers in the hopes of convincing their rivals to back off.

Complicating matters is the fact that these four city officials aren’t alone. Bill Thompson, who did surprisingly well against Bloomberg in 2009, said that he would try again this time around. Congressman Anthony Weiner, who did surprisingly well himself in 2005, then passed on another run when Mr. Bloomberg extended term limits, has been telling people that, despite an increasing profile in Congress, he plans to take another crack at getting the second-biggest job in America.

Talk to any half-dozen political operatives or lawmakers about who has the inside track and you hear two dozen responses:

“On name recognition alone, Bill Thompson can get to 40 percent and avoid a run-off,” said one.

“De Blasio’s has the unions. The unions haven’t lost an election they cared about in years,” added another. “There is a first tier and a second tier, and Stringer, Quinn are Weiner are in that first tier.”

“John Liu is the only one that can put together labor and minorities. He wins in a walk.”

“If the Democrats take back Congress, Weiner will decide to stay in Washington.”

“Liu won’t give up a safe seat.”

“Nobody seriously thinks Thompson will run.”

The thing is, in a crowded field, none of the six own a slice of the electorate all to themselves, and it is impossible for anyone to plausibly claim that he or she has even an inside edge, let alone be considered the front-runner.

In the New York of the early 21st century, the Democratic electorate is divided into three and a half overlapping parts. There are black and Latino voters who make up more than 30 percent of the city’s electorate. There are the union voters under the banner of the Working Families Party, who make up for diminished numbers with a sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation. There are also the upper-middle-class white voters who live on the Upper West Side and in brownstone Brooklyn, who live by the buzzword “reform” and who have huddled under the cause of “progressivism.” And, lastly, there is the “forgotten fourth,” a group made up of white and ethnic voters in the outer boroughs, workers in the building trades, cops, firemen, Orthodox Jews, seniors, and Asian and Russian émigrés who may vote Republican in a general election but remain registered Democrats. The trick is to clear the field so that you can hold together as much of one group as possible and start to poach from another.

“Everybody has to walk this really tight line,” said one vet of several mayoral campaigns. “You have to stay liberal enough so the liberals like you while also hoping that the edit boards, Jewish seniors and gays like you, or like you enough. It’s really fucking complicated.”

When he was elected city comptroller in 2009, for example, John Liu added Asians to the traditional Black and Latino coalition, and won with some labor support. But if Mr. Thompson runs, the vast majority of the African-American vote will go with him, and, as one lawmaker who counts Mr. Liu as an ally put it, “there is absolutely, positively, no path for John Liu.” The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Liu is young, has a good gig and can afford to wait eight years, when the Asian vote will be a larger percentage of the electorate. But Mr. Liu is a prodigious fund-raiser, one who can tap into a national network of Asian voters and who brims with ambition. Mr. Thompson, meanwhile, has yet to open a campaign committee, and without a proper political perch-he currently heads the Battery Park City Authority and works for the municipal bond underwriting firm of Siebert Brandford Shank & Co-there is not much reason for the big donors to give. His advisers, however, say he is definitely running, and point to Mr. Thompson’s role in the campaigns of several 2010 candidates, including Andrew Cuomo, whose campaign he co-chaired.

“In 2009, everybody else punked out. He stayed,” said one former Thompson adviser. “He gave up citywide office to run in 2009. Why wouldn’t he run in 2013 when there is nothing to give up?”

But although Mr. Thompson may have engendered some goodwill among Democrats for taking the fight to Mr. Bloomberg the last time out, he ran a pretty lousy campaign by most accounts, and relied on widespread anti-incumbent and anti-Bloomberg sentiment to make the race closer than it otherwise would have been.

At the same time, Mr. Thompson’s would-be 2009 Democratic primary opponent, Anthony Weiner, has performed a Zelig-like shift from the candidate of white, middle-class, outer-borough residents-that forgotten fourth-to a superstar of the Daily Kos-reading, MSNBC-watching left, taking on President Obama for not going far enough on health care reform and becoming a YouTube star in the process for his eruptions at Republicans on the House floor. Mr. Weiner has avoided the major municipal fights of the past several years, remaining uncharacteristically quiet, for example, during last month’s disastrous snowstorm response as even the most reticent of pols piled on. But in becoming a national face of the left, he may have sacrificed his old base. After securing over two-thirds of the vote in each of his previous runs in his relatively conservative Congressional district, he had an unknown Republican opponent grab 41 percent of the vote against him in 2010.

Mr. Weiner will be the lone candidate who has done battle with Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, but at some point he will have to wade into local issues that have tripped up the rest of the field, like Wal-Mart or legislation to boost the city’s prevailing wage. While Mr. Weiner lacks the deep union ties, he could parlay his newfound status as the congressman every Republican loves to hate by running strong among progressives in Mr. de Blasio’s base in brownstone Brooklyn.

To counteract any gains Mr. Weiner hopes to make there, Mr. de Blasio hopes to build a firewall with his deep
union ties. He once worked as a paid lobbyist for an organization affiliated with the Working Families Party, and they went all-in for him in his 2009 public advocate race. Mr. de Blasio is close to Mr. Cuomo as well, and runs strong among minority voters-his wife is African-American-but his support among rank-and-file black and Latino union voters will be undercut if either Mr. Thompson or Mr. Liu are in the race.

While Borough President Stringer has been perceived as someone lacking the swagger or stature that New Yorkers like in a mayor, he has recently begun to reinvent himself as a fund-raising powerhouse, headlining small, low-dollar house parties around the city. He has a powerful backer in Congressman Jerrold Nadler, remains very popular in vote-rich Manhattan and hopes that he can convince labor unions-with whom he has been friendly-that he is more viable and, thus, a safer bet than Mr. de Blasio.

Standing in Mr. Stringer’s way, however, is Christine Quinn. Just as the field does not have room for both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Liu, it may not have room for two good-government Manhattan liberals. Political insiders are most divided on the prospects of the speaker of the City Council, with some seeing her as likely to drop out of the race altogether and aim for a lesser office, and others seeing her as a veritable lock for a run-off. Ms. Quinn has hitched her wagon to Mayor Bloomberg’s centrist, business-friendly star, at the risk of angering the progressive base, and eight years of City Council shenanigans-even if she was not very involved in many of them-can inspire attack ads that nearly write themselves. But Ms. Quinn would be the only woman in the race, and the fact that she would become the first lesbian mayor of the city could turn her candidacy into a cause.

Ms. Quinn also has another thing: the so-called elites. These are the people and groups who make up the Partnership for New York City, the Association for a Better New York, who work on Wall Street or in real estate and who make up for votes with money and editorial board influence. This was the group that propelled Mr. Bloomberg into office, and Rudolph Giuliani before him, and Ed Koch before that. It is their nod that convinces moderate, outer-borough white and immigrant voters to get to the polls.

Needless to say, the race remains far, far into the future. A candidate who can knit together a couple of these coalitions, like Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Harlem Children’s Zone head Geoffrey Canada, New York Housing Commissioner John Rhea or onetime Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., could emerge. But the conversations-among fund-raisers, politicians, consultants-to lay the groundwork have started, and the long campaign has begun.

Countdown to 2013: The Muddled and Messy Start to a Mayor’s Race Still Two-and-a-Half Years Away